On home turf, no dent in Tharoor’s popularity. At least, not yet

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Bereaved Sunanda’s death has not made Tharoor less popular among his fans
Bereaved Sunanda’s death has not made Tharoor less popular among his fans.
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Shashi Tharoor, minister of state for human resource development and MP from Thiruvananthapuram, is no stranger to controversy. When his wife Sunanda Pushkar was found dead in a hotel room in New Delhi on 17 January, he found himself once again in the eye of a storm. His detractors hoped this would ruin his chances to retain his Lok Sabha seat in the upcoming General Election.

However, the 57-year-old has braved many such crises ever since he bid adieu to his career in the UN in 2007 to enter the rough and tumble of politics in India. When he contested the 2009 Lok Sabha election on a Congress ticket from Thiruvananthapuram, he was criticised as an “elite outsider”. He won the seat with a handsome margin of around 1 lakh votes and went on to become the MoS for External Affairs in the UPA-2 government. However, he had to resign from that post just a year later, following allegations that he had misused his office to get shares in the IPL cricket franchise of Kochi. In his resignation speech, he had vehemently denied the charges and asked for a probe to bring out the truth. And in 2012, he was reinducted into the Cabinet as MoS (Human Resource Development).

Tharoor has a huge fan following in his constituency. In fact, many compare his popularity with that of former chief minister and CPM leader VS Achuthanandan, who is currently leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly. He is especially adored by the youth and women, who think he is strikingly different from the other politicians they have seen. No wonder there is no dearth of politicians across party lines in Kerala who consider Tharoor an “intruder” in their domain.

The first to lash out against Tharoor following Sunanda’s death was Congress leader and former Kovalam MLA George Mercier. The former legislator, who has considerable influence among the Latin Catholic community in Thiruvananthapuram constituency, has openly asked the party leadership to keep Tharoor out of the electoral fray this year.

And, as expected, the Opposition Left parties have smelled an opportunity in Sunanda’s death to snatch the Thiruvananthapuram constituency from the Congress. Along with the BJP’s Kerala unit, the Left parties too have demanded Tharoor’s resignation from his ministerial post.

“This will certainly damage Tharoor’s political career,” says P Ramachandran Nair of the CPI, whom Tharoor had defeated in the 2009 Lok Sabha election for the Thiruvananthapuram seat. “To Tharoor, politics is like show business. He may be a model for new-age politicians, who are seen only on television and have little connect with the common man.”

Nair remembers that in the run-up to the 2009 election, the media painted Tharoor as a “godsent, who can do anything”. “And today, the same media can destroy him. His celebrity status has become a burden for him,” says Nair.

Whatever his opponents might say, Tharoor’s friends and supporters continue to swear by him. Especially after Sunanda’s son Shiv Menon went on record saying he didn’t blame Tharoor for Sunanda’s death.

Menon’s statement brought a sigh of relief to Tharoor’s friends and supporters. “Sunanda’s death was unfortunate, but it won’t destroy Tharoor’s career,” says former diplomat and Tharoor’s friend TP Sreenivasan. “Sunanda’s relatives have not made any allegations against him. I think the initial doubts have vanished and now there is sympathy for Tharoor.”

P Minimol, who has been working as Tharoor’s executive assistant in Thiruvananthapuram for the past five years, minces no words in expressing her admiration for her employer. “He is the best person I have ever known,” she told TEHELKA. Minimol is confident that Tharoor will emerge unscathed from the controversy surrounding his wife’s death.

“He is the Sachin Tendulkar of Kerala politics,” says Sanjay Vijayakumar, CEO of MobME Wireless Solutions, a Kochi-based IT company. “Unfortunately, his private life has been dragged out into the open and his opponents want to use that for scoring political points.” Vijayakumar believes that Tharoor wields considerable influence on the people in his constituency and that won’t change until another candidate with better credentials takes him on.

Shobana Vijayan, 38, a domestic worker from Thiruvanathapuram, attributes Tharoor’s popularity to his good looks. “I will vote for him again,” she says, “as I like to see him on television.” Shobana sees no reason why Tharoor should be made to pay a price for his wife’s death.

Given Tharoor’s continuing popularity among the voters in his constituency, top state leaders of the Congress have been cautious with their comments. While Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has come out in his support, Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala has so far desisted from responding to questions on the issue.

KG Jacob, general secretary of the Thiruvananthapuram District Congress Committee, however, is more forthcoming. Speaking to TEHELKA, he admitted that many local leaders of the Congress were initially elated with the news of Sunanda’s death, thinking it would destroy Tharoor’s career in politics. “But soon they realised that the people will sympathise with Tharoor,” says Jacob, who thinks Tharoor’s only problem is his unfamiliarity with the intricacies of local politics.

“Tharoor will contest from Thiruvananthapuram again,” says a senior Congress leader, who didn’t wish to be named. As of now, it seems the current controversy will blow over and Tharoor will rock Thiruvananthapuram again after a short break.

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Bureau Chief, South

Jeemon Jacob has been a journalist for 26 years both in print and television, as of 2011. He was a Reuters Fellow and spent nine months in Oxford University as visiting scholar in 1994-95. He has headed the political bureau in New Delhi of the Rashtra Deepika group of publications and later joined News Express in Brunei Darussalam as Features Editor. He won the Statesman award for rural reporting in 1987 for his seven articles that exposed a brown sugar racket in Kumily, Kerala.

In 1990, he won the state award for best reporting and in 1992, his article on social alienation of people with HIV/AIDS won the prestigious PUCL Award for human rights reporting in 1992. Jeemon is a graduate in English Literature and Journalism and has exposed the corruption behind the DMK government’s allotting prime land to high court judges, senior civil servants, and the kith and kin of politicians under the government’s discretionary quota. He is based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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